The World’s Oldest Continuously Cultivated Grapevine: ‘Old Vine’

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The roots of “Old Vine” are so deep that it has three trees growing from the ground / photo by Norm Bour

Wine is known as one of the oldest beverages ever cultivated by man. Records show that as long ago as 5,000 BC, people were enjoying the fruit of the vine.

Aging wine is a crucial step in the winemaking process, and some properly aged vintages have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the wine from the oldest still-producing wine plant, affectionately known as “Old Vine,” cannot be purchased at any price, but is instead, given away by the mayor of the small village of Maribor, Slovenia.

Even though it is considered a village, with just under 100,000 residents, Maribor is still the second largest city in the nation of Slovenia, which only has two million residents, about two-thirds the size of Orange County.

Slovenia may not be on the radar of most wine lovers, but it has been producing wine for hundreds of years. Along the Drava River sits this charming village, and each year the pruning of Old Vine is a cause for celebration, as is the cultivation of that years’ harvest.

Though this vine is not abundant, the Žametovka (also known as modra kavčina) is a red Slovenian wine grape variety, and is one of the oldest domesticated grape varieties in Slovenia. The American translation is “velvet black” and the wine coloration is so deep red as to almost be black. It is considered to be a high-quality wine, and this singular plant, with three separate root systems extruding from the ground, generates about 35 to 55 kilograms (77 to 121 lbs.) of grapes each year, which is fermented and put into about 100 miniature bottles.

Each bottle is 2.5 dcl (250 ml), about 8.5 fluid ounces, and the wine is aged in barrels made from stainless steel, which emphasize its interesting and specific varietal characteristics.

They offer tastes and sales of their other varieties / photo by Norm Bour

Much of this information was shared by Katja, the host on duty. When I asked her if she was lucky enough to have tested this nectar of the Gods, she replied sadly, “No, none of us have!” Seems that company perk is not part of the package.

Stara Trta is the Slovenia name of the winery and the building which houses the displays along with the Old Vine growing out front. It has been confirmed at more than 400 years of age, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest vine in the world still producing fruit.

It was planted in Maribor at the end of the Middle Ages during the Turkish invasions. It witnessed – and survived – the battles that raged between the invaders and defenders of the city, for the Old Vine House of today was once part of the city wall.

They do not know the exact year of the planting, but the vine can be seen in paintings from 1657 and 1681 since the building was part of the city wall, and the address of the building is documented in these four-centuries old pieces of history. Over the years, cross sections and ring counts have been counted. The total: 375 annual rings.

Old Vine / photo by Norm Bour

The Old Vine is the only plant with its own museum – the Old Vine House—which is owned by the city of Maribor. Caretaker Stane Kocutar is a celeb in this town. He has been pruning Old Vine for the past decade is known wherever he goes.

Most wines in this major wine growing region only last half a century at best. Old Vine was lucky since a major wine disease known as Phylloxera decimated much of the European wine crops in the late 1800s and killed off over 70 percent of the wine crop in France and other countries. Most agree that its survival was due to the deep roots that had been firmly established.

The annual pruning festival in Autumn is a major city event and includes songs, hymns, and anthems written to honor the Old Vine. They also take cuttings and send them to different locations; the progeny of the Old One is in Austria, Japan, Israel, and as far south as Australia.

Bottles are given to a select few, including several Popes, former President Bill Clinton, and leaders current and past from Japan, Great Britain, Russia, and the Czech Republic, and a few fortunate celebs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt.

I asked Katja if the wine was considered to be “good wine,” to which she delicately responded, “It’s up to your taste.” She also shared that they do have in storage some of these rare bottles that are over two centuries old.

This decanter filled with wine from Old Vine is only given away by the city to visiting luminaries / Photo by Norm Bour

The decanter itself was designed by Oskar Kogoj, who designs “with nature” and who has been granted dozens of awards in industrial design in varied materials, including wooden jewelry, toys, stone and metal, and especially, glass—including wine decanters.

They say you can buy anything if you have enough money, but not in this case. For wine aficionados, if you want exclusivity, you might want to look elsewhere. Even so, Slovenian wine is very under-recognized, but well appreciated by many throughout the world.

Norm Bour has been a regular contributor to the NB Indy for the past 10 years. He and his wife left Orange County for life on the road abroad. He recently wrote “Nomadic Travel for All Ages” which documents their journey from the beginning, and shares experiences and lessons of life on the road. He and his wife, Kat, travel like the younger generation and share their experiences at their web site and Facebook blog called www.TravelYounger.com.

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